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Rep. Mike Carter speaks during the Education Mini-Summit 2016 at the Volkswagen Conference Center on Sept. 20.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved legislation proponents say will provide new safeguards on law enforcement's power to confiscate cash, vehicles and other property from suspects or owners never charged with a crime.

The vote was 88-0. Senators are expected to take up the bill today.

"This is a very significant change in civil asset forfeiture," Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, the bill's sponsor, told the House.

"The whole purpose is to slow down the seizing authorities to make sure they're willing to put their pocketbook and their wallet behind their action," he added later. "No more willy-nilly seizures."

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, in the upper chamber, is intended to address a number of complaints and controversies involving seizures of property.

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Sen. Todd Gardenhire, right, listens to Sen. Bo Watson Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, at the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

While the seizures often involve suspected drug dealers, drug transporters or other types of criminal activity, that's not always the case, according to attorneys and other critics. They say innocent property owners currently get zinged in a confusing, unfriendly legal process heavily weighted in favor of law enforcement that often reaps benefits from seizures.

The Carter/Gardenhire bill sets up a bifurcated process providing two legal routes. For those whose property is seized but aren't arrested, Carter explained, "then you have full due process rights and you go through an entirely different process for the seizure." If successful in getting the property returned, "you have an absolute right, a mandatory act of the judge to award interest and fees. That is the most significant part."

In the case of those charged at the scene and their assets seized, they, too, have a more defined legal process to seek return, provided the property was not involved in commission of a crime. Another significant aspect, Carter said, is that cash itself is not in and of itself a crime.

"There is nothing wrong with having cash," he said. "So we shift that burden to the state to have to prove that that cash was being used in such a way to make the possession illegal and subject to forfeiture."

In committee testimony last year, a Knoxville attorney described how a woman suspected of drunken driving was stopped, charged with possession of prescription drugs for sale with police seizing $11,000 in cash. The "prescription" drugs turned out to be over-the-counter antacid medication, the cash from the just settled estate of the woman's late mother, according to the attorney.

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While criminal charges were dismissed by a judge, the woman still had considerable difficulty regaining the money through the state's administrative law process.

Critics on left and right charge the seizure process both in Tennessee and across the nation has been abused and amounts to "policing for profit," a characterization sharply rejected by law enforcement. Law enforcement officials here have fought past legislation pushed by Rep. Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville, to end the practice.

Carter, an attorney and former Hamilton County General Sessions Court judge, brought to the table associations of prosecutors, sheriffs, chiefs of police and others and got them to agree to the bill. No one is entirely happy, he noted.

"Quite frankly, I didn't hear from the many folks I usually hear from," Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, told Carter, congratulating him on the legislation.

Daniel, meanwhile, thanked Carter for bringing the bill, but noted he considers it only the second of three necessary steps to rein in civil asset forfeitures. One already implemented, he said, was more reporting and audit requirements on what assets authorities seize and where it goes.

"The next and hopefully final step will be not only shutting off the ability to hand these matters to the feds but also requiring a conviction before a person's property is taken," Daniel said.

Carter and Gardenhire consulted with former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese on the legislation and after making further revisions to the bill in response to Meese's suggestions named the measure after him.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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